Teddy Bears in the Sky

Pollinators, such as hummingbirds, bats, butterflies, moths and bumble bees, to name a few, are responsible for the food we eat. Thanks to these hard-working creatures, one out of every three bites of food we eat is a result of the work they do, spreading pollen from one plant to another, helping plants to reproduce. Pollinators are vital to maintaining healthy ecosystems and to providing wild and cultivated crops to our table – think plump tomatoes, sweet blueberries, chocolate and coffee beans. A key pollinator is that fuzzy, yellow and black bumble bee.

A bumblebee resting on a flower.

Bumble bees are known as a keystone species; they are a species which other species depend upon. So, it comes as no surprise that a decline in the number of native bees is something we should all be concerned about. Peter Soroye, conservation biologist and Ph.D. student at the University of Ottawa, studies the intersection between climate change and habitat loss on pollinators. In a recent interview with Spotlight with Scientists in School, Soroye discussed his groundbreaking research. His findings link the decreasing bee population directly to changes in our climate. The gradual warming of our planet is making it too hot for bees to survive, prompting #2Hot4Bees to trend on the internet. His published findings even caught the attention of environmentalist, Leonardo DiCaprio.

Soroye explains, “Climate change, extreme weather conditions, like drought and flash floods, habitat loss, and use of pesticides, are driving the number of bees down. With fewer plants to pollinate, bees have less food. Habitat loss means that the bees have no place to forage or hide when it is too hot or too wet, and there are fewer places for bees to overwinter. All of this is decreasing the number of bees.”

Bumble bees are important pollinators! Soroye affectionately refers to bumble bees as “teddy bears in the sky!” They are cute and fuzzy, loud and colourful, and they are one of the first insects to start pollinating in the springtime. Their size and furriness help them to stay warm. They can begin pollinating as soon as the first snow starts to melt. Bumble bees will begin visiting ephemeral plants that spring up during the first days of warmer weather. Queen bees look for plants early in the spring once they come out of hibernation. Soroye says we can all do our part to save the bees. You can simply start by planting a pollinator garden!

Planting Pollinator Gardens

A bumble bee resting on a flower.

Pollinator gardens aren’t well-manicured gardens, they are messy, beautiful, and colourful. Kids will love creating a pollinator garden and the bees will love it even more. The first step is to choose your spot – it could be a backyard, a balcony, a roof-top, a community garden, or green space in your school.

Beeee-gin by doing a little research. Find out which wild plants are native, in other words, plants that grow naturally in your area. Native plants, once established, need less water and maintenance. There are 20,000 known bee species worldwide and 800 are native to Canada. Each species is unique and pollinates different plants at different times. Talk to your local botanical society, they can help you find the right plants for the right space. Once you have chosen the plants, check the plant labels or seed packets for information on hours of sunlight needed, recommended soil pH, and moisture levels required for optimal growing conditions.

Select a variety of native plants. Make sure your garden has plants that support all life cycles, so that there is food for every stage of an insect’s life, from hungry caterpillar to adult. Choose plants that flower at different times of the season so there’s always a tasty snack available.

Bee Menu:

  • Early bloomers: blueberries, crabapples, foxgloves, crocus, heather, and primrose
  • Mid-season bloomers: Blackberry, dahlia, lavender, catnip, raspberry, sunflowers
  • Late season bloomers: Coneflowers, sunflowers, goldenrod, pumpkin, squash

Bee species have different tongue lengths, so each is adapted to feed off of a different shape and sized flower. Have fun and plant a variety of plants. Different shaped flowers mean more pollen and nectar for a variety of bees.

Plant in clumps of 3-5 of each type of flower and plant them closely together. This makes it easier for the bees to forage.

Add rocks to absorb heat so that insects have a place to warm up.

Insects need places to rest and overwinter so leave piles of twigs and branches on the ground. Consider adding a log with lots of holes in it so that bees can nest inside. Avoid using heavy mulch, which makes it difficult for the bees to get underground during the cold winter months.

Be safe and avoid the use of chemicals and pesticides.

Education and Conservation

Child doing an experiment with soil.
“With greater understanding come better solutions.” – Peter Soroye

Educating students about the effects of climate change and the loss of biodiversity is the best tool we can give our children. This is critical if we want to slow down the crisis our planet is facing.

Consider supporting science education in the classroom. At Scientists in School we offer hands-on virtual workshops that support a wide range of opportunities so that young scientists can develop the skills needed to become environmental stewards. Check out the workshop catalogues in your province for a complete workshop description of the following environmentally-focused topics:

  • Intriguing Invertebrates: Students learn about invertebrates in their own backyards by creating models of these creatures. Physical characteristics, habitats they live in, the way they move and eat will be investigated.
  • Our World of Energy: Follow the influence of the sun as we study the impact energy has in our world. Investigate light and sound energy. Discover how to conserve heat. Create a story-board to follow the path of energy from the sun to all living things.
  • Get the Dirt on Plants: Dig into learning about plants and soil! Hands-on activities include investigating soil layers while constructing a soil profile, experimenting with water retention, kinaesthetically exploring plant parts, examining seed dispersal and dissecting a seed.
  • Hooo’s in the Owl Pellet: Experience being a real-life biologist! Use an integrated STEM approach to investigate the diet of an owl and estimate the prey number and type. Dissect an owl pellet, sort and identify bones.

Check out useful on-line resources such as e-Butterly, iNaturalist, Bumble BeeWatch, and Pollinator Partnerships.

Make smart life-style choices – walk more, drive less, be energy conscious, reduce, reuse, recycle.

Soroye hopes that young people hear his message, “There is still hope! There are things we can do to save our beautiful planet”.

This spring, use your voice to spread the word on bumble bees, and use your hands to spread some seeds in your garden!